Government Favors Destructive Layout of Solar Facility Near National Park

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reviewed three different alternatives for the proposed Desert Sunlight Solar power project, and expressed support for a 6.8 square mile layout that includes an area with a dense desert tortoise population.  The Desert Sunlight solar project would be built by First Solar and Desert Sunlight Holdings LLC on public land less than two miles from Joshua Tree National Park.  The project is still in the initial stages of review, and you can read the draft environmental impact statement and offer comments on the BLM website.

Among the three different alternatives, layout "C" would have the least impact on desert tortoises and other sensitive plant and wildlife, but the BLM and CPUC expressed support for layout "B," which contains at least 22 active desert tortoise burrows.  Surveys of the smaller layout "C" only found 7 active burrows.  The draft Environmental Impact Statement did not explain why the more destructive layout "B" was justified.

The Desert Sunlight Project (center, outlined in bright blue) would be built just outside of Joshua Tree National Park.  Map from Bureau of Land Management.
A closer examination of the three different layouts, with the smallest layout outlined in light gray.

Blue shading represents lower quality desert tortoise habitat, and the dots and triangles represent observed tortoises or signs of tortoise found on the proposed project site.  The destructive layout "B" would include the higher quality tortoise habitat in the northwestern portion of the site.  Map from Bureau of Land Management.

In addition to desert tortoise, layout "B" would also impact burrowing owls, loggerhead shrikes, and a high number of foxtail cactus.  The transmission lines and substation for the project would be built on public land designated as desert tortoise critical habitat south of the main project site.  The draft environmental impact statement dismisses the option of encouraging rooftop solar, and also dismissed the option of building the site on private land, or public land with lower quality habitat.

Desert Sunlight would be one of several large-scale solar energy projects proposed or approved for operation in the Chuckwalla valley of the Colorado Desert (see "Chuckwalla Valley Under Seige").  The Blythe Solar power project has begun construction in the Chuckwalla valley and will destroy over 14 square miles of desert habitat. 

Public comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement are due by 27 November.

Desert Tortoise.  Photo from BLM Draft EIS


  1. Thanks for posting this! At a public meeting, First Solar told me that they found only 6 tortoises for the C alternative. They concluded through an equation developed by Alice Karl, a biologist quite famous for excavating tortoises out of their burrows, that there are only 12 tortoises on the entire site. In my experience surveying for tortoises and the recent under count over the Ivanpah Solar disaster, I think that is very low. I have also been told by a BLM biologist that that number is most likely an under estimate. First Solar also plans on translocating the tortoises to the Chuckwalla Critical Habitat designated to protect desert tortoise. The Fish and Wildlife Service is predicting 50 percent mortality for translocated tortoises for both the host and recipient populations. I will even go as far to say that a local person, who is a credible source of information, has told me that one of the first biologists who surveyed the site for tortoise in 2008 did it on a dirt bike! I did not see that, but the low numbers make me wonder what happened!

    This project will be visible from Joshua Tree. The panels will look like a big rectangular body of water from a distance. This polarized water effect can be a death trap for migratory birds and aquatic insects. The false promise of water causes animals to dehydrate.

  2. thanks for the insight Kevin! I might use that for a new posting on rigged tortoise numbers

  3. Hey Shaun G, I just found out about your blog, awesome! I am a CA Desert Native too, major advocate, desert lit professor and writer and all kinds of stuff...I grew up north of Apple Valley and now live in Palm Desert. Can you contact me ASAP via email so I can collaborate with you to join forces? I know all others pretty much on this site and am doing stuff on facebook and so forth, thanks! Ruth Nolan


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